Forsgate Country Club – Banks Course

6,379 yards, 134 slope from the Blues

Course:  Located in Monroe Township, New Jersey, just off exit 8 of the Turnpike, is Forsgate Country Club, which consists of two courses, one designed by Arnold Palmer and the other by Charles Banks.  I was fortunate recently to play the Banks course, yet another Golden Age treasure in the area that some how stays under the radar and has been on my short list since I knew it existed.

Charles H. Banks is some how not as well known as Seth Raynor or C.B. Macdonald, but worked for Raynor and learned course architecture from him, with his courses resembling those revered for their template holes and interesting green complexes.  Banks worked with Raynor on such greats as Yale, Mid Ocean and Yeaman’s Hall (anyone associated with working on Yale is tops in my book!).  Whippoorwill in New York, Essex County GC and Hackensack GC in New Jersey, as well as Cavalier in Virginia, are amongst Banks’ courses that, like him, are well respected yet not as well known as other architects and courses of that time have become to be.  Called, “Steam Shovel,” Banks liberally used that machine to carve into greens and create steep, bold and memorable green side bunkers.  These bunkers are a cornerstone at Forsgate and are a large part of its identity, yet there is much more here that makes the course one of the better in the area.

The course was built during the Great Depression and opened in 1931.  It would be the last course Banks designed, who passed just before it was completed.  While course construction slowed considerably during this time, this allowed the architect to remain on site more often and pay attention to more intricate detailing than they normally would.  Jeffersonville GC was built at the same time and Ross certainly spent more time on that site than others for that same reason.  The detailed components of Forsgate certainly support this, which include greens that are sublime with wonderful subtleties that are the result of meticulous shaping.  While subtle, the greens are also distinct and bold in many respects, with one of the better Biarritz greens I’ve played.  The greens are indeed touted as some of the best on the Mid-Atlantic seaboard, while the collection of par 3’s is as strong as any course out there.  There are template holes and like Yale, they are amongst more of a parkland setting that’s wide enough in enough places to come into the green at different angles, without creating narrow corridors where you’re forced to “thread the needle” between them.  In fact, the trees only come into play for mis-hit shots off to the side and never as an obstruction you need to negotiate.  The course is set on moderate rolling terrain, where blind shots are used sparingly yet cleverly and the elevation changes create intrigue, especially on the back nine.  In fact, many of the holes are straight to the green, a testament to just how interesting golf can be even if there’s not a lot of dog legs and turns.

The two most distinctive features here, however, are the greens, followed by the bunkers.  Even the template greens are distinct, while the “horseshoe” green at the Twelfth is one of the more memorable in the area.  They are some how subtle and bold at the same time and aside from mandating placement on approach shots, are just a whole lot of fun.  Whether it’s using the back slope of the Biarritz to get your ball close on a chip off the green, or using the punch bowl on the approach, there’s so much variety and movement.  As for the bunkers, they are intimidating and dramatic, asserting themselves as hazards to avoid and with how severe they drop off from the green, it is common to find yourself needing to get the ball 15 feet straight up in the air and landing softly, as any green side bunker shot overhit will likely sail over the green to another similar monster bunker.  Once you experience this, the bunkers do their job of intimidating and influencing your approach shots; namely, hit as far away as possible from them.

What intrigued me about Forsgate is that while Banks used template holes, his own style is very much alive here, which differs from Raynor in many respects.  The most striking difference is Banks used very few blind shots, as Banks liked the player to be able to strategize and maneuver the course in front of them.  And more dramatic bunkering instantly comes to mind.  Along these lines, I’d say Banks imposed a steeper penalty for finding a hazard, where the goal in recovery was more towards survival than with Raynor hazards, which generally allowed more of a chance for creativity in saving par.  If there was any critique I have of the course, it’s that there are a handful of holes where the approach strategy is similar; stay away from the steeper green side bunkers and if the pin is close to them, decide how close you’re willing to risk getting.  I actually started punching my approaches into the green away from the bunkers, taking them out of play completely.  This is limited, however, to a few holes, and even then, exacting approach shots are necessary to avoid the intimidating hazards.

It befuddles me that the Banks course is largely unsung.  It is easily in the top 10 of New Jersey courses, which includes such behemoths as Pine Valley, Somerset and Plainfield.  While the course is respected and enjoyed, its greens, par 3’s and par 5’s on the front nine are the stuff of greatness that I think warrant a much higher ranking.  It’s yet another example of an outstanding historically significant course in our area that many may not know about.  While Macdonald and Raynor courses are now widely celebrated, Banks is slowly getting his due with his smaller portfolio of brilliant courses, Forsgate amongst his best.

The First is a 367 yard par 4 (from the Blue/Member tees), the “Prepatory” hole.  A nice wide fairway leading uphill to the green, with a single fairway bunker on the right that’s in play off the tee, as well as trees running up the left side.  A gentle handshake for sure, until you get to the approach shot, where you immediately get acquainted with the dramatic bunkering.  The deeper, more penal bunker is off the right side of the green while a shallower-yet-still-tough bunker is on the left side, both running at angles, parallel with one another.  The green in general pulls from left to right and is pretty wide.

The First

Approach shot territory
JD doing JD things

The Second is a 403 yard par 4, the “Narrows” hole.  An elevated tee shot that is set on the left side of the fairway is again sufficiently wide, although trees on either side come into play if you really overplay your tee shot.  I suppose it is narrower than most holes, but I still felt there was plenty of width.  The fairway rolls in waves to the green, which is set slightly above the fairway, this time the more severe bunker is on the left side, although the right one, albeit shallower, is to a green running away from you.  Easy enough and as I see it, the first two holes set you up for the man-eating Third.

The Second

Approach shot territory

Another look from the center of the fairway and a little closer.

The Third is a 182 yard par 3, the “Eden” hole.  By far the most difficult Eden hole I have come across.  The Strath and Shelley bunkers were both severe and deep.  While on the tee, I thought I’d be clever and favor going long, since I’d at least take those two massive bunkers out of play.  I hit my shot a little longer than I wanted, which hit the back side of the green before taking another bounce.  I thought I’d have a nice chip to the pin, but once I got up there…yep, there’s a bunker on the back side. Aside from the three killer bunkers surrounding the green, the green itself has a ridge towards the middle that separates the left and right sides into two tiers.  So even if you nail your tee shot, which by the way plays longer than the stated yardage, your putting must be up to snuff to get your par.  It’s quite an introduction, after two gentler welcoming hole, this one lets you know you’re in for a round.

These plaques are on each hole.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to photograph all of them, but they were nice to read.
The Third

So there is a bunker on the rear side…

The Fourth is a 332 yard par 4, the “Hog’s Back” hole.  The fairway bounds downhill from the tee, pinching in where a mound on the right of the fairway sits and the left side slopes towards the center.  While it’s a short hole, there really is no place to miss off the fairway.  I was able to get my tee shot down the fairway, watching it roll after it landed.  After the massacre on the Third, I opted to punch into the green and avoid any chance of the bunkers altogether.  The green is subtle, yet the hog’s back does provide undulations and is on the smaller side, again compensating for its shorter length by demanding more precision.

The Fourth

Moving down the fairway

Getting to the green, from the right side

A mound that meets you on the right side, blocking the view of the green

The green, this one on the subtler side, yet the hog’s back visible

The Fifth is a 403 yard par 4, the “Punchbowl” hole.  The fairway climbs uphill and spreads off to the right, so there’s a lot of room to attack the green from.  While there is room to really get a tee shot out straight off the tee and to the left of the bunker, getting off to the right a little gives you a better line to the green, which is one of the few blind shots on the course.  The punchbowl green slopes more along the back and right than the left side and moves from back to front in general.  The various spots that can be accessed off the tee allowing for different angles into the green, along with the movement of the green and how that can be used on the approach, make this a fun hole.

The Fifth

The end of the fairway

Getting closer to the green once fairway ends

Looking back at the tee from the right side

The left side of the fairway as it starts going up towards the green

That left side, just a little further back

Approach shot territory, one of the few blind shots on the course

The punchbowl green

A closer look

The Sixth is a 334 yard par 4, the “Knoll” hole.  While the tee shot is straight away, like the Fifth, placement off the tee is still very determinative of how you’ll fare on this hole since it dictates the difficulty of your approach shot.  There’s a large mound that blocks a view of the green from everywhere except the very far right side.  With a bunker in front of the mound, or knoll, and green side bunkers surrounding the green, it’s with considering advancing up the right side, even into the rough off of the fairway, to see the green on your approach.  A hazard that affects how the entire hole is played demonstrates the effectiveness of the design.

Approach shot territory

The Seventh is a 189 yard par 3, the “Redan” hole.  It’s actually a reverse Redan, as the green moves from right to left instead of left to right.  The tee is above the hole, with everything moving away from the tee, downhill.  This means that there is a very real possibility of some shots rolling off the far side of the green, even when landing towards the front, so hitting well short, imparting backspin, or getting the ball high in the air to land softly are paramount here.  It’s a tough hole, as acceptable landing areas are scarce and the green is quick, making any pin placement on the left side a bear.  Yet it’s a hole where contour movement can’t be ignored, only negotiated.  

The Seventh

The right side of the green looking towards the tee

The Eighth is a 551 yard par 5, the “Long” hole.  The first of two back to back par 5’s, the fairway runs straight to the green, canting from right to left the entire way.  This makes for some tricky lies, even in the fairway, and becomes more treacherous closer to the green, where it becomes apparent any approach shot off the left side of the green actually goes off the side of the planet.  Don’t worry though; there’s a bunker on the left, or high side of the green as well, that drops off abruptly.  I lucked out here, as my second shot ended up in the rough on the right side, which gave me a pretty nice lie into the green.  As for the green, it also moves from right to left with subtle undulations on the lower rear side.  A fantastic par 5.

The Eighth

Approach shot territory

Off the left side of the green

Looking back at the fairway

Trying to show just how abrupt the bunkers drop off from the green

The green, from the back side 

The Ninth is a 495 yard par 5, the “Plateau” hole.  Still going in the direction of the Eighth towards the clubhouse, the tees are set off to the right of the fairway.  The fairway cants from right to left just as much as the Eighth, so there must be care off the tee to favor the right side, or else the ball will certainly bounce and roll off the left.  There’s also a ridge that blocks the view of the fairway leading up to the green.  Any tee shot getting over the ridge will get a lot more roll as well, putting the green well into play on the second shot.  The green is indeed on a plateau, wide yet narrow, with a deep bunker along most of the front.  There’s also a bunker off to the right of the green that extends away from the fairway that can’t be seen from the fairway.  The plateau green takes an exacting shot, with the only bail out room short and off to the right that may or may not stay up near the green.  The approach is simply one of those shots you must execute, or else.  One of may favorite holes here.

The Ninth

A closer look

Moving down the fairway

Looking back towards the tee from the other side of the ridge

Approach shot territory

Looking back towards the tee

A look at the plateau green

The right green side bunker, hidden from the fairway

Looking back from the green

The Eighteenth green and clubhouse facilities

The front nine has a nice rhythm, starting off gently before the stiff challenge of the Third, then bounding amongst challenging, fun and strategic before the sobering stretch of Seventh through Ninth.  The par 3’s and 5’s are excellent while the punch bowl is a nice little par 4.  The greens are very well done, with the green complexes typically bold while the surfaces are subtle and complex.  The back to back par 5’s set the course and this nine holes as memorable.  I’d rank them 8, 9, 3, 5, 7, 6, 4, 1, 2.

The Tenth starts with the 408 yard par 4, the “Valley” hole.  Turning around and heading back in the direction of the Ninth, there is a halfway house to stock up on food and drinks.  The bag of trail mix was a nice idea.  As for the Tenth, it’s straightaway to the green, but the valley causes the fairway to fall, then rise back up to the green.  Trees on either side of the fairway do limit its width.  The green side bunker on the right is severe, at least 15 feet below the green, with the fairway and green running towards it.  There’s also a green side bunker on the left higher side, which has its own unique set of reasons to avoid.  The green has a ridge that creates tiers, more over on the right side.  It’s a great approach shot.

The Tenth

Approach shot territory

Greenside bunker

Greenside bunker, left high side

Back side of the green

The Eleventh is a 349 yard par 4, the “Steamshovel” hole.  It reminded a lot of the Tenth quite honestly; straight out, tree lined, steep dramatic bunker on the right, shallower but still dangerous bunker on the left.  The differences between the holes are that here, the fairway is flatter and there’s a green side bunker on the back side.  The green here actually tilts to the left, so there’s another difference.  Nonetheless, the differences weren’t enough for it to feel mostly redundant.

The Eleventh

Approach shot territory

A closer look

The green from the left

To try and show the steepness of the bunker from the right

The Twelfth is a 140 yard par 3, the “Horseshoe” hole.  A short par 3 with a raised green surrounded by bunkers, the key feature is the green contour, which is a horseshoe shape facing the front left of the green.  This creates an upper tier along the outter side of the green and a lower tier towards the center.      The green complex is one of the course’s more famous features and for good reason.  Most pin positions will have their own separate intrigue while I like seeing it in the middle of the horseshoe, which creates a more challenging punchbowl.  A terrific shorter par 3.

The Twelfth

From the left

On the green, from the back right

The Thirteenth is a 519 yard par 5, the “South Wind” hole.  Now going back in the direction we came from the last three holes, the tee show only appears narrow but actually widens once it goes past the ridge visible from the tee.  Again, one of the better jobs at placing a course on a rectangular property; although back and forth holes are generally frowned upon, Banks didn’t have much of a choice from the land given to him.  Regardless, it’s a great example of how to deal with such a property.  You don’t notice the holes beside you and they generally don’t come into play.  The different elevations of each of the parallel holes helps, as well as tree placement, which is far enough back from each hole to not impose its ill too much.  As for this hole, the fairway is a little narrow and wavy, leading up to the green, which curls to the left around a large bunker.  The green moves towards that bunker and is on the larger side.  Perhaps the south wind helped me, as I had 185 into the green on my second shot and a 15 foot eagle putt, which I of course missed, settling for birdie.

The Thirteenth

Moving down the fairway

Approach shot territory

The green

A better look at the left bunker

The Fourteenth is a 396 yard par 4, the “North Wind” hole.  Another one that’s straight to the green, more severe bunker on the right of the green, shallower on the left, green runs left to right.  At this point, the round reaches a sort of a flat point, as the Tenth, Eleventh, now Fourteenth feel very similar.  The fairway here widens a bit and it’s flat from fairway to green, but boy does the bunker here get deep in a hurry.  So severe, hitting out of them with a good result is a challenge.  Punch your approach shots in like I did!

The Fourteenth

Approach shot territory

From the left side

From the right

The Fifteenth is a 318 yard par 4, the “Chocolate Drop” hole.  The hole bends slightly to the left, with a couple fairway bunkers on the left side as well.  The second fairway bunker on that side has the chocolate drop, a raised mound directly in the middle of the bunker.  Going for the green likely brings the chocolate drop bunker into play, while trying to go right of it is fine but you’ll be in rough and your angle into the green is far from ideal.  The green is protected by a large deep bunker on the right and a deep trench bunker on the left, making an approach hitting the green a priority.  A nice short par 4 with lots of options and more than enough to keep the reckless long ball in check.

The Fifteenth

The green, from the right side off fairway

Looking back from the green

The famous chocolate drop

The Sixteenth is a 388 yard par 4, the “North Berwick” hole.  Bending slightly left, the tree line on the left makes it seem like the hole has more turn to it than it actually does.  The right side is open for the most part, there are a couple trees that are problematic if you hit it directly behind them.  The green complex exhibits a terrific balance of fun and challenge, wide up front where it meets with the fairway, a ridge running from front to back on the right side and a narrowing as the green reaches the back.  While the bunkers aren’t the steepest on the course, the narrowing of the green means there’s a very real possibility of hitting from one side to the bunker on the other, making them more treacherous in ways.  Really liked how this hole set up from tee to green, and how its difficulty remained proportional to the degree of miss.

The Sixteenth

From the right side

Approach shot territory

Left side of the green

The Seventeenth is a 201 yard par 3, the “Biarritz” hole.  The last par 3 is my favorite, as the sloping of the Biarritz is first rate.  Steeper in the back, either front or back can be used to get the ball to the pin, yet any shot too far to the front, or back, runs the risk of staying there.  While recovery shots are more fun for me, chipping off green or out of the bunkers, getting creative with the tee shot and ball flight is also a good time.  It was definitely one of the more well done Biarritz greens I’ve played.

The Seventeenth

Front of the green

Looking at the back from the bottom of the Biarritz.  The photo couldn’t capture the severity of slope

Towards the front of the green

A good vantage point

The Eighteenth is a 398 yard par 4, the “Purgatory” hole.  On the same topography as the Tenth, the fairway rises from the tee, then dips down before going back up to the raised green.  Perhaps purgatory is supposed to the right green side bunker, I think the left green side bunker is equally purgatorious, especially if the pin is set on the left.  Or it could be that anything off the green is purgatory, take your pick.  The green runs from left to right yet is on the larger side. but the trees actually come in a little more on both sides of the fairways than most holes, so it gives more shots a chance to hit the green.  Another great green complex to finish the round, as the clubhouse facilities sit directly behind the green.

The Eighteenth 

Approach shot territory

A little closer

From the front right

The green, from the left side

Trying to capture the depth of the left bunker

Another look

The back nine features another pair of all world par 3’s and some very good par 4’s.  While there’s a little bit of redundancy in the middle holes, the strong finish ends on the right note, with the Eighteenth punctuating one of the better one shotters you’ll come across at the Seventeenth.  Ranking them, I’d go, 17, 12, 16, 18, 10, 15, 13, 11, 14.

Ben Hogan once characterized golf and putting as two different games, as golf is played in the air and putting on the ground.  There may be some truth to that and you certainly see it here, as once you’re on the green, it seems like an entirely new adventure from the one taken to get there.  Just as you’re able to take different lines and ways from tee to green, you’re then free to use the slopes, dips and undulations of the green to your heart’s content, options abounding.  Beyond the intrigue of the greens lies a strategic gambit, where each shot must be well thought out, with the next always in mind.  While there is a lot of attention and trending towards Golden Age courses nowadays, it’s always important to keep in mind why those courses are so revered.  From a playing perspective, some of the prominent features include accessibility and interest for all skill levels, as well as having to think your way through the round, not just mindlessly swinging away like you’re at a driving range.  The straightness of the holes actually allowed for more angles and lines to the greens, making a broader range of ball flights acceptable.  Along with that, you’re able to cut up whatever preferred distances you want on most holes, or lies, by hitting a variety of clubs off the tee.  It’s a course that requires a complete set of skills, and that includes course management.

Here, there are no visually striking tranquil lakes serving as water hazards, nor are there any seaside cliffs tipping out to the horizon, and you’re certainly not in an enchanted forest where each hole is seemingly a world apart from the other.  It’s a course set on a trapezoid piece of property, of moderate size and elevations.  The point is Banks showed how much course design can turn blander property into mesmerizing art and here, the ambience rests solely with the course itself and its design features. Features like the Biarritz green and horseshoe green are works of art that can be admired just as much as a view of the ocean, maybe even more so.

Forsgate is an important course, both historically and from a design perspective.  It’s one of the few Banks courses showcasing his brilliance, shaped by his experience with Raynor, as well as an example of what what can be accomplished when there’s plenty of artistry, craftsmanship and talent.

Gripes:  Time to upgrade the range balls.

Bar/Grill:  A nice inside area with wrap around seating and an outdoor area.  Good beer selection and food was decent.

Clubhouse: An array of different buildings, which provided ample space without seeming imposing.  The pro shop was fairly big with a good selection.

Practice area: A full range and the putting green was great, showing off a severe slope to get you ready for the real thing out there.

Driving range